In 1947, The Queen’s York Rangers ended nearly 200 years of service as an infantry regiment to join the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps (RCAC). Although the RCAC was not created until 1940, by the end of the First World War Canada had improbably become the leading nation in the world in the practice of mechanized warfare. The roots of the RCAC, and of Canada’s success at mechanized warfare, can be found in the stories of two remarkable Canadians.
The first of these men is Brigadier-General Raymond Brutinel, CB, CMG, DSO. Born in France, he immigrated to Western Canada in 1904 and became wealthy speculating in land, surveying for the Grand Trunk Railway and as a newspaper magnate. When war broke out in 1914, he immediately offered to raise a unit for service in France. This unit was remarkable for its time, as it was to be entirely motorized and equipped primarily with machineguns. Approved by the Minister of Militia and Defense, Sam Hughes, the “1st Canadian Motor Machinegun Brigade” became the first mechanized unit in the British Empire.
The unit was first equipped with Colt Model 1895 .30 machineguns and Autocar light trucks, all acquired by Brutinel in the United States. The cars were lightly armoured, based on a design created by Brutinel himself. By mid-September 1914, Brutinel had twenty trucks (eight of them armed) delivered to Montreal, ready for service. By June 1915, the unit had completed training and was deployed to France.
The Brigade’s pioneering techniques with the employment of machineguns, aside from mounting them on motor cars, quickly came to be recognized by the Allied armies. Brutinel later said that his unit was:
“the fundamental cradle of the eventual Canadian Machine Gun Corps. In it were evolved MG schools, methods of training, new tactical employment of Machine Guns [that were] eventually adopted by all the allied armies and [that] influenced markedly the fighting method of infantry and other arms in trench warfare and open fighting.”
The 1st Canadian Machinegun Brigade saw action in support of the Canadian Corps throughout the war. They were employed to great effect at Vimy Ridge, and are credited with playing a key role in stopping the German Spring offensive in 1918.
The second notable Canadian who sits at the heart of Canada’s brief ascendance in mechanized warfare is Major-General Frederic Franklin Worthington, MC, MM, CD. Brutinel’s Brigade attracted many unusual and flamboyant recruits, perhaps none more so than Worthington.
Born in Scotland, he was raised by his step-brother on a Mexican gold mine after the death of his parents. When his brother was killed by bandits during an attack on the mine, Worthington was left to his own devices, becoming a teenaged mercenary. He ran guns to Cuba, briefly commanded the (one ship) Nicaraguan navy, and fought for Madero in the Mexican civil war. He enlisted as a private in the Black Watch in Montreal at the outset of the First World War, and by 1917, had been commissioned as an officer and transferred to the 1st Canadian Motor Machinegun Brigade. He served in the Brigade as a battery commander, winning the Military Cross and Bar and the Military Medal and Bar. Leading from the front, he became one of Canada’s foremost practitioners of this new way of war.
The conundrum posed by the tactical conditions of the First World War on the Western Front was that the combination of overwhelming numbers of machineguns and artillery and massive armies swollen by national conscription tilted the advantage overwhelmingly in favour of the defense. The trenches that ran from the Alps to the North Sea in a continuous line, so often associated with the First World War, were a reaction to these conditions. Military innovation was focused, in part, on finding the means to break the tactical stalemate and create the conditions for a successful offense. The German focus was on doctrinal innovation, leading them to develop infiltration tactics and the “elastic defence.” French and British innovations were primarily technological, focusing on equipment such as armoured cars and tanks, and finding means to improve the effectiveness of artillery.
Mounting machineguns on armoured cars was an imperfect solution to the problem, but did create the potential to rapidly move guns to where they were needed on the battlefield – often to halt German attacks or counter-attacks. Both during the German 1918 Offensive and the “Hundred Days” that ended the war, Brutinel’s brigade (now joined by a 2nd Brigade identically equipped) began to show their true potential. The deadlock broken, Brutinel’s armoured cars were able to move rapidly and shape the battlefield in ways that the bulk of either Army could not, relying entirely on tactical movement by foot or horse.
This is the kind of fighting at which Worthington excelled. He had both a keen technical and tactical mind. As a Private in the Black Watch, he “acquired” a Lewis gun for his section, which he modified to improve its operation. Most notably, he modified the return spring in such a way that it could be rapidly replaced if it broke, a common fault on the guns. When his modification was discovered, he was placed under arrest – only to be later released, and to find that his modification had been adopted by the Army as a whole. (In his memoir, Worthington notes that the arresting officer was given credit for the innovation.)
After the war, Worthington continued to serve in the Canadian Army, advocating in vain for many years for the creation of a permanent mechanized force. He was instrumental in the decision to purchase Canada’s first tanks, a pair of Light Tank Mk VIs from Britain, in 1938. With the Second World War on the horizon, in 1938 Worthington became the Commandant of the newly created Canadian Army Fighting Vehicle School, and eventually came to be recognized (and loved) as the father of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps.
Worthington continues to loom large in the minds of the Canadian military. To do this day, many members of the Corps use the closing salutation “Worthy” in their correspondence. And this past Remembrance Day, his restored Autocar rolled out of the Canadian War Museum and roared down the streets of the nation’s capital, a reminder of the time when Canadians were the foremost practitioners of mechanized warfare in the world.